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« Burlesque Benefit | Main | Group Characteristics 2 »

August 31, 2005

Group Characteristics 1

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I like discussing group characteristics, darn it. Gals are like this, guys are like that ... The French are always so very such-and-such ... Isn't that just what a Middle-Westerner would do ... That kind of thing. I have no desire to box anyone in, of course. I just like feeling oriented in the world.

Where's the harm? When such discussions are carried on in a friendly, rowdy spirit -- one that allows for exceptions and makes room for individuals and variations -- they don't turn me into a racist. Instead, they enhance my appreciation of other people. And why not? People do come in different flavors; types do exist.

Pretending otherwise -- the approach official America has preferred for the last 30 or 40 years -- seems self-defeating. It also breeds a lot of ugly resentment. When people are told by authorities that what they notice day to day and what they know as a practical fact mustn't be acknowledged, they can get surly. Their ideas can harden. They can get over-insistent about what's being denied. And they inevitably lose whatever respect they might have for the authorities who are doing the denying. Not a good situation.

Denial of group characteristics can also seem childish and naive. (And by "group characteristics," I don't mean just racial, ethnic, and national groups. There are all kinds of groupings. Professional, for example: In a very general sense, doctors tend to be different than actors. Our physical equipment plays a role: Tall people are often different than short people.) For one thing, people in cultures outside the U.S. generalize all the time about themselves and other groups. I have some Asian friends, for instance, who are clear, emphatic, and funny about what the Chinese, the Thais, the Japanese, and the Vietnamese are like. And, well, everyone simply knows about those Koreans, eh? Actually, I don't. But I wish I did.

When I was a student in France many aeons ago, I was a colorblind, naive, vanilla American kid. The French shocked me with how unabashed they were about characterizing themselves and others. It seemed an important part of being a competent person, the knowledge of what "an Italian" was like, or what it meant that someone was "a Spaniard." (At the time, I genuinely had no idea.) The French, they are an exacting race: You were even expected to have a sense of regional differences. "A Norman" was known to be a very different creature than "an Alsatian," for instance. And those Provencals -- well, we all know about them. Bien sur.

I never witnessed anyone go into theory or philosophy where any of this was concerned. Genes were never mentioned; neither was history. Explanations simply weren't needed. The world is as it is, and the important thing is to not be a fool about it.

Another shock hit me when I moved to New York City. Although in many ways the city is a hotbed of leftism and political correctness -- ie., denial -- it's also a place that is frankly and openly divvied up among tribes. You're lost in NYC if you don't have a sense of what "the Irish" are, of what's expected of "a Puerto Rican," and of how the Italian/black relationship is different than the liberal-Jewish/black relationship. You're a fool and a loser if you don't know these things -- but you're also a fool and a loser if you speak about them too openly. Sigh.

Is there a danger in taking on such topics? Sure: throw open a closet and a bat or two may fly out. This strikes me as a risk worth running. I'd rather contend with a couple of bats than keep important matters of common knowledge under lock and key. Besides, the longer that popular topics are suppressed, the more chances the bats have to multiply.

Of course of course of course, evil people may make horrible use of such knowledge, and of such generalizations. But evil people will misuse whatever they can get their hands on. Deny them one weapon, and -- trust me -- they'll find another. Allowing the creeps to dictate what the rest of us notice and discuss seems ... well, like caving in to evil, doesn't it? And where preventing evil goes, doesn't it make more sense to invest our limited brains and energy not in stifling open discussion, but in intercepting and coming down hard on evil people and their deeds?

A long way of introducing the first in what I hope will be an ongoing, informal series of postings about group characteristics. Wimp that I am, for now I'm going to rely on others: I'll copy-and-paste or re-type generalizations that others -- trustworthy others -- have made. Good humor, thoughtfulness, and appreciativeness understood to be essential, of course.

Margaret Talbott recently profiled the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki for The New Yorker. She talks with Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki's producer and partner, and asks how Miyazaki gets started with his projects. I found Suzuki's response enlightening about what the Japanese take to be differences between "Western" ways and Japanese ways of proceeding.

The taking-off place for one film was an image Miyazaki ran across in a book -- an image of a castle that ambulates through the countryside. Suzuki describes Miyazaki's process this way:

"The book never explains how [the castle] moves, and that triggered his imagination ... He wanted to solve that problem. The first thing he did on the film was to start to design the castle. How would it move? It must have legs, and he was obsessed with settling this question. Would they be Japanese warrior legs? Human-type feet? One day, he suddenly said, 'Let's go with chicken feet!' That was, for him, the breakthrough ...

"In traditional Japanese architecture, you start with one room -- maybe the alcove, where you hang some pictures. You spend a lot of time trying to pick the right shelves, the right little pillar, what kind of handles the drawers will have. Only when you finish that room do you worry about the next.

"In the West, you start from the general and go to the specific. A Hitchcock movie might start off with a panorama of the city, and then the camera closes in on a street, and a house, and then the stairway inside. If you're a Japanese filmmaker, you might start with the railing on the stairway. When Miyazaki makes a film, he is thinking, 'OK, first off; here are two very important points to settle. Does the little girl in the movie have braids or not? And are they long or short?'"

I didn't turn up Talbot's good profile on the web, but you can read an interview with her about Miyazaki here.



posted by Michael at August 31, 2005


What about the characteristics of groups who blithely ignore the destruction of one of the world's great cities and the Biblical-proportion devastation of the region that surrounds it?

Posted by: beloml on September 1, 2005 11:09 AM

Castle on chicken feet? I'm afraid M. wasn't very original in his thinking: hut on chicken feet is a traditional feature of Russian folklore. Even 2nd graders know that.

Now, I have no idea could this fact (cons. or uncons. plagiarism) be attributed to a person or should be read as a group characteristic - say, all Japanese are..., or all Asians..., or ...all cinematographers, or ...all gullible and exotics-seeking Western journalists...

Posted by: Tatyana on September 1, 2005 12:16 PM

Yes, the Japanese are very fond of appropriating elements of other cultures; "adopt, adapt, adept."

Posted by: Zetjintsu on September 1, 2005 1:01 PM

I find Suzuki's comment very helpful about Japanese aesthetics -- the emphasis on the particular, the relative lack of interest in the larger more abstract questions ... Sounds like a lot of Japanese art to me.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2005 1:07 PM

For what it's worth, here's a Wired piece about a recent study claiming to show that Chinese and Westerners perceive the world somewhat differently ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2005 1:11 PM

Here's a Group Characteristic I've observed myself, but is perfectly coined by the author:

"On the plains ... we also treasure our world-champion slow talkers, people who speak as if God has given them only so many words to use in a lifetime, and having said them they will die."

- Kathleen Norris, from "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography"

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 1, 2005 2:46 PM

It took me years to come to grips with WASP placidity, reserve, even temperedness. Coming from Jewish excitability I thought it was a put on, an act of extreme self-control. And it threw me. That is to say I had to remind myself to keep myself under control, get a grip, not "lose it," in the presence of WASPs.

Now, I believe WASP reserve to be a genuine characteristic, a natural tendency. And I have given up being me when I am among WASPs. Being me, giving my natural excitability full reign, only alarms them. So I don't do "brilliant" or "crackling" or "subversive. After all, what's to be gained by frightening the naturally nice?

Posted by: ricpic on September 1, 2005 3:50 PM

A castle with chicken's feet dwindles to nothing when compared to a shark with chicken's feet.

Posted by: Brian on September 1, 2005 8:07 PM

Yamdallah, could it be my H.S. friends' father belongs to the tribe you describe?
H.S. - Tatarstan, Russian federation, end 70's.
My friend - a lively lanky popular girl, unstoppable talker.
Her father, Mr.Hyakkinnen, for all 6 years I've known him, said no more than 5 consequitive words, most of this amount at his daughter's wedding, toasting.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 1, 2005 8:27 PM

Ricpic -- That's pretty funny. I'm a downtown guy but also a fairly reserved, halfway-Waspy guy. And it took me years to persuade some of my outgoing, emotional Jewish friends that I wasn't uptight -- I wasn't a Jew who needed liberating from whatever was constricting me. Instead, I'm just a temperamentally fairly reserved guy. It was very flattering that they thought they saw so much in me, hiding behind the reserve. I felt bad about disappointing them. I've got some Italian friends who seem completely convinced that everyone who isn't Italian is really Italian deep down -- that they're just lying about their true nature, which of course must be Italian. (As far as I can tell, my Italian friends think of themselves -- all passionate, sensual, and operatic -- as Essence of Human.) I wonder if all nationalities/groups/etc think that, deep inside, members of other groups are really just like them, they're just lying about it. Which would mean that, deep down inside, outgoing Jews and operatic Italians are really reserved Wasps ...

Hmm, that theory may not work.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2005 9:36 PM

ricpic -- if the "reserve" is natural, it's probably not so much reserve as cold temper -- a low degree of excitability so to say. Something that, for an outsider, borders on insensitivity. A thin-lipped coldness, speaking from my Ugro-Slavic perspective.

Posted by: Alexei on September 7, 2005 3:06 AM

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